CUTS International, Lusaka
“Learn to be comfortable not knowing what to expect. The experience is richer that way.“
Having worked on three continents, Chenai Mukumba has experienced the highs, the lows and the upside downs of living away from Zimbabwe. She is currently living in Lusaka, Zambia where she is the Centre Coordinator of CUTS International – an NGO that promotes South-South cooperation in trade and development.
Chenai left Zimbabwe directly after high school and moved to South Africa where she completed her degree. While she was in South Africa doing her studies, her family decided to relocate to Johannesburg when things in Zimbabwe started getting too difficult.
“So in a sense, I just never went back home so to speak. There was no farewell, no goodbyes – it just kinda happened.”
After completing her Masters’ degree in South Africa, Chenai went to Switzerland on an internship opportunity and then was hired for a couple of consultancies and short-term contracts with major International Organisations in the United Nations system. She ended up spending two years in Switzerland, after which she said yes to a position with an NGO whose Head Office was based in Jaipur, India.
“For me, India was such a turning point in the way I see the world. I went there initially because I thought it was a great career move. Competition is tough in the development sector and I thought to myself that moving to India would give me an edge. But I got so much more than I bargained for.”
Describing India as an “acquired taste”, Chenai’s own admiration for India stems from the transformations effect it had on her experience and the contribution to her life trajectory. The richness of India’s culture coupled with what she hailed the “unapologetic sense of self” in the environment there changed something in her. She revealed a challenging realization that she came to acknowledge through her multiple relocations,
“In order to live fully where I was I had to let go of my past.”
Despite the “culture shock of epic proportions” that she experienced moving from Switzerland to India, Chenai thrived in that environment, making the most of her three years in India and advancing in her career.
“At some point, that environment starts to seep into your belief system. My appreciation for Indian culture fostered my appreciation for my own. It helped me see Western culture, its values and beliefs, as merely another option in a world so full cultures that too had equal contributions to the development of our societies.”
She attributes her ease of adaptability to life in different countries to her “comfortability with the unknown”. She advises others planning on living abroad to dismantle stereotypes and be careful not to read too much secondary information about the host city/country as this could do more harm than good.
“Go in with as clean a slate and open a mind as possible. I think it’s okay to read, but make sure that that information is secondary to what you’re about to experience. Learn to be uncomfortable not knowing what to expect. The experience is richer that way. But that’s just me of course.”
After three years in India, Chenai began to feel “an itch” and a longing to go home.
“It was almost as though I’d come to the end of a training of sorts and it was now time to put into practice what I’d learnt not just abroad – but in another developing country from a completely different context that faced issues as urgent and complex as our own.”
She consulted with her NGO and at a mere 29 years old, Chenai was asked to run the Southern Africa office of the NGO based in Lusaka, Zambia and that’s where she is now.
“It’s such a huge responsibility I still can’t believe it sometimes. But I think it speaks more to our perseverance as a people more than anything else.”
Chenai’s Dream for Zimbabwe:
Many people dream for Zimbabwe to go back to what it used to be. I no longer dream that.
We are where we are today because the Zimbabwe that many of us have nostalgic memories about was a Zimbabwe that truly benefitted such a tiny proportion of the population – myself included.
Many of us have been placed in situations that were worse than before but if we only go back to where we were then all this heartache would have been pointless.
We have an opportunity to come out of this a society where everybody truly benefits and has an equal opportunity to succeed.
This is my dream.
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